The Media is the Message 

Ken Ikeda has his own solution for the chronically underperforming students at Oakland's McClymonds High School: Give them a camera.

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Besides the four student managers, Youth Sounds' only other employee is Chris Pendergraft, the techie hired on by the district as a consultant. He also runs Vulcan Radio in Oakland, a streaming-audio station known for its offbeat programming. He's definitely Ikeda's right-hand man, assisting with teaching and mentoring.

"We've reached the point where we are going to have to set up criteria that I know Ken doesn't necessarily want to establish," he says. "We need criteria about who gets into the program and who doesn't. What if there's a student that might be the next George Lucas, but right now he's so unmotivated by school and his environment is so hectic, that he doesn't have the grades to make it into our program even though he could take off as a filmmaker? We're going to have to establish whether or not [entrance will] be based on his emotional state, his grades, or what."

In fact, Ikeda isn't at all blind to the necessity to set standards. "The biggest thing is that we have to be tough about who we let in and who we don't," he says. "You always think that that if you reach one kid, then that's great. But I think it's an absolute tragedy if you reach one kid and that one kid wastes or ruins the experience of thirty other kids." Like most things in the program, though, Ikeda would ideally like to leave the decision in the hands of the students. "An indicator of how successful we will be is that kids will monitor this space and experience for us. They won't allow in someone who isn't willing to be cooperative, isn't willing to participate in the program. They'll self-select."

If the slow pace at which the program seems to be moving forward irks Ikeda, it doesn't show. "We're going to graduate some students with the skills to edit video. We can actually hand off cameras to kids, and the worst that can happen is we lose a camera."

Actually, losing their cameras could be catastrophic at this point. With all the expensive computers and equipment they have, if they lose either of their two Sony Mac-compatible cameras, they have no funds to replace them, and no means to broadcast or make films. "If we lost those," says Chris Pendergraft, "our program would be down. So that's what I'm saying. Ken is well-intentioned. He's got what it takes: perseverance, steadfastness, and sacrifice. He's not receiving one cent in this. He's not on salary; he's doing this out of his heart. But there's a lot of well-intentioned people out there who can't pay the rent. I think we need fiscal strength as well. Just so we can have a base to work with."

In Life Behind the Walls, a slender woman sits casually in a chair in a classroom and says how proud she is of McClymonds High School. The woman is Lynn Haines Dodd, the principal. "Ninety-nine percent of people," she says into the camera, "once they enter the campus, their perception is changed one hundred percent." Now in her third year as principal, Dodd brings both strict discipline and high expectations to her job, her coworkers say. Sitting down with a reporter in a teacher's meeting room, she is inviting and nondefensive, but she's obviously also quite accustomed to the task of defending the performance of her school to members of the press.

"McClymonds is a unique school. It's one of the oldest high schools in Oakland. It has a rich heritage of outstanding athletes; there are scholars that have graduated from McClymonds that have gone on to establish themselves throughout the world. Unfortunately, McClymonds is usually written off. We are one of the high schools in the Oakland unified school district that has scored at the bottom of the academic performance index. In fact, we are at number one, which is probably about as low as you can go. But our students have definitely been shortchanged along the way. We fight for almost everything that happens at McClymonds. We fight for our AP [advanced placement] classes, we fight for our honors classes. We even fight to maintain our status as a comprehensive high school, because our enrollment is so low."

Since the school has such a small student body (fewer than 750 kids are enrolled, and even fewer than that show up), Dodd knows each student, if not by name then at least by sight. "It's a family atmosphere here," she says. "A lot of people think there is not a lot going on during the course of a school day here other than fighting, and students walking the halls, but that's not us. It's an unfortunate perception that many Oaklanders and other people in the Bay Area have."

Dodd is a strong believer in after-school programs, having coordinated many before her appointment as principal of McClymonds. "Our students come to school every day with life circumstances that you wouldn't even believe. This becomes a home to them; this becomes a safe haven. This is an environment where they know they can stay until six or seven o'clock at night. The doors stay open, so they are here. If they are not involved in athletics, they're involved in cultural activities or tutoring. Or they will go in the library and just hang. You'll see them reading a book or working on a computer."

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